Ice Core Drilling in West Antarctica

What Are They Doing?

Using a large hollow drill, the WAIS Divide Ice Core Drilling team collected a 3,500-meter-long ice core, or sample of ice, from the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Because of the weight of the overlying snowpack, snow that falls and accumulates on ice sheets re-crystallizes and forms annual layers over time. The ice core recovered during the project had annual resolution, or distinct yearly markings, for the past 40,000 years!

In ice sheets, the compression of snow traps small bubbles of air in the layers of ice. By measuring concentrations of greenhouse gasses and non-greenhouse gasses and their isotopes trapped within bubbles in the ice, the team developed climate records dating back to 100,000 years before present.

This ice core provided the first Southern Hemisphere climate and greenhouse gas records of comparable time, resolution, and duration to ice cores previously recovered in Greenland. The ice core enabled scientists to make detailed comparisons of greenhouse gas concentrations and environmental conditions between the Northern and Southern hemispheres with a greater level of detail than previously possible. The biology of the ice collected was also investigated.

Learn more about this process here

Where Are They?

The research team was based at the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) drill site, in western Antarctica. The WAIS divide sits on top of 3,485 meters of ice, thicker than 9 Empire State Buildings stacked on top of one another! The WAIS is classified as a marine-based ice sheet, meaning that its bed lies well below sea level and its edges flow into floating ice shelves. The WAIS is bounded by the Ross Ice Shelf, the Ronne Ice Shelf, and outlet glaciers that drain into the Amundsen Sea.

Expedition Map


It is hard to believe but I am already home! I arrived home sooner than I thought due to a rapid sequence of unanticipated flights! I am certainly exhausted after the long journey! The WAIS camp closed down more quickly than we thought and I left WAIS only to find myself on a plane back to Christchurch less than 12 hours after leaving the field! 36 hours after that, I collected my luggage in Flagstaff and arrived at home safe and sound! I didn't realize how much I missed sunsets, the night sky, and easy access to fresh vegetables. I also love having a warm bed and, of course, a flush toilet...
On January 25th we finished drilling! The final depth of the ice collected was 2561.57m! We collected over 1,000m of ice this season and are hopefully on track to finish drilling next year. Replicate coring will hopefully follow in the 2011-2012 season. It is hard to believe that the season is already coming to a close! It feels like we just got here and got the operation up and running. Now, we will spend the next several days cleaning up camp, cleaning out the arch, and preparing for another great season of drilling next year. Most of our crew left camp today. They all headed back to...
Here is a short video that summarizes all of the steps in collecting an ice core using the Deep Ice Sheet Coring (DISC) drill. Thomas Bauska of Oregon State University helped me put together this video. Enjoy!
We have one of the best and coldest commutes to work out here at WAIS. WE often take snow machines to and from the drill arch to camp around meal times and when we are moving lots of people and cargo around. This video is a little summary of that work commute on a snow machine. It is a short commute, only about 1.5 minutes, and rarely is there traffic! We are usually really bundled up to stay warm and always wear our helmets for safety. Many of our snow machines have sleds on the back so we can take 5-7 people to the arch or town at a time. We even have a gas station for our snow machines!...
Mr. Wesche came to visit WAIS Divide! What a great surprise! It is rare to have a friend just hop over for a visit when you are in the deep field in Antarctica.Body: We had a special guest for the day here at WAIS Divide! Mr. Wesche, a PolarTREC teacher who is at Byrd Camp, flew in with his crew to come visit. I'd like to think he came just to see me but I think the ice cores were more exciting! I got to take Mr. Wesche around camp and show him how our little camp on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet differed from Byrd Camp. Both Byrd and WAIS Divide have the same type of buildings and the same...

Project Information

9 November 2009 to 1 February 2010
Location: West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) Divide, Antarctica
Project Funded Title: West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) Divide Ice Core Drilling Project

Meet the Team

Heidi Roop's picture
University of New Hampshire/ Desert Research Institute
Seattle, WA
United States

Heidi Roop grew up exploring the formerly glaciated landscape of Wisconsin, and today continues her love for studying glaciers and climate variability through research in Antarctica and alpine regions around the world. Spending the austral summer of 2010-2011 in Antarctica, it will be her second season working as a part of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) Divide project. When she is not in Antarctica, she works throughout the Sierra Nevada studying climate variability and hydrology for the United States Geological Survey.

Bruce Vaughn's picture
INSTAAR - University of Colorado

Bruce Vaughn is the Co-Founder and Manager of the Stable Isotope Lab at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) ( at the University of Colorado. The Stable Isotope Lab is devoted to studying biogeochemical processes that control environmental change on human timescales, and works to develop new techniques for measuring environmental stable isotopes. A Field Leader for the project, Mr. Vaughn has extensive research experience worldwide, including: Greenland, Antarctica, equatorial Pacific, Alaska, Ecuador, and the Cascades and Rocky Mountains.

Ken Taylor's picture
Desert Research Institute

Ken Taylor is a Research Professor at the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nevada and the Principal Investigator and Chief Scientist for the WAIS Divide Ice Core Drilling Project. Dr. Taylor has worked with ice cores in Greenland and Antarctica, and has also spent time traveling around the world studying water quality issues.

Anais Orsi's picture
Scripps Institution of Oceanography

A PhD candidate at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, CA, Anais Orsi studies the history of climate by analyzing gases in air bubbles trapped in ice cores. She has been involved with WAIS-divide for three years. When she is not in Antarctica, she melts ice samples in her lab to release the gases, to learn about West Antarctic climate during the last 1,000 years.